Personalised Websites – Creepy, or Useful?

It’s the next phase in evolution for the digital world – websites that show content that YOU want to see or hear about. We see it already in tracked advertising, Google display ads (or similar) that promote items you have search for or looked at on sites. These are the hidden in the cookies and tracking data that follows you around the net.

For instance I was looking up some new computer parts, just wishful dreaming on my part, but low and behold when scanning through my Facebook feed what display ads come up? The very items I was looking at on my preferred computer parts vendor website. It’s a direct call to action – hey you looked at these ram chips, don’t you want to buy them? If I clicked on the link I would go straight the page with the item, a Buy Now (or add to cart) button sitting right there for me to press…

But that’s not personalising the website, that’s just marketing (or more rightly advertising) based on my habits or interests.

Website personalisation is about making the experience of visiting a website for an individual, personal to them. Or at least to their assigned persona. Examples are easy to find in the e-retail industry. We have all experienced Amazon’s amazing ability to use our past purchases, wishlist or views to predict other items we might want to buy. This goes beyond the hint of, “other people who have bought X also buy Y, W and Z”.

Amazon Image Personalisation

It’s about pushing items to the users homepage that the algorithms suggest they would like to purchase. These items vary by user based on their history and data gathered about each individual users. The way Amazon can do this is through the user login in and thus identifying themselves to Amazon. It all comes down to analysing the huge amount of data a company like Amazon can collect on it’s customers. Not only limited to purchase and search history, or what pages or items you have viewed. It can also use demographics such as age, sex, location to start to make connections, creating a persona and comparing that with other users within that cohort and analysing their spending habits and what might be similar.

I have a Kindle 2, I have explored the new range of Fire products, what’s on my homepage? See the image above!

This is much like the above computer part example – however it’s all contained with the one site,, and not using advertising to bring the user back to the site, its about supplying content that meets my needs based on my past purchases and searches. It is also delivered in a way that is unlike traditional advertising. The best way for a e-retail site to sell to a user is by subtle and almost accidental provision of the information.


Media or News sites also do this, by personalising a users home page based on their past interests or pages they have viewed before. Some sites even allow users to select what topics interest them. This provides the most dynamic and ‘of interest’ items to the user. It’s about giving users what they want to see and making the use of the site easy and relevant.

The above example of the New York Times shows a different homepage based on the user preferences, or past interests. Delivering content that the user wants to consume and therefore will want to return to the site and consume more. This isn’t about selling something specific like the e-retail sites.

So can you, or should you, personalise your website?

There are three ways that websites can personalise;

  1. Implicit – based on a users past history, purchase history or search terms, could also be the IP address of the user
  2. Explicit –  chosen by the users, could be defined via a login process or membership “I’m interested in…”
  3. Hybrid – combination of the two

A national based company could easily identify the location of users by the IP address information. We see this in global e-retail sites that convert prices to nation of user, or an electricity retailer who provide packages based on your State of origin. These could be further enhanced by a question like, “prices are in AUD is this correct?” or “packages are applicable for Victoria, change state here”. These are implicit and do no require the user to enter anything (unless they want to change the settings).

Once a user logs in or creates an account the wealth of information that can be gathered gets bigger and more specific. It then becomes a matter of analysing the data and creating systems and rules to deliver the right content to the right person.

Obviously you can combine these two systems to serve your customers and users better.

All in all the reason to personalise a website is about answering a users need, whether that providing products or services that compliment and enhance their experience. In essence making the website relevant to the user.

There are risks to use of personalised websites. Many customers might feel like their privacy has been invaded, or might wonder if big brother is watching them. It can seem creepy when a site keeps delivering items or content that feels like it’s reading your mind.

Would you personalise your website for your users? Do you dislike or find problems with personalised websites? Let me know in the comments.

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